Work and Human Dignity
Many who talk about the link between economics and human dignity from a Christian perspective employ rhetoric about the deep connection between human dignity and work. And in a real sense, this is consonant with the biblical narrative: humans were meant to co-create and care for the world with God as his representatives. This means doing—getting our hands dirty, imagining new things, creating cultures and having new ideas. All this is clearly good and a part of the unique dignity of human beings.
The problem comes when a one-for-one connection is made between the human task to be God’s image-bearing co-creators and working for the contemporary capitalist labor market. To do so is a sleight of hand that obscures important differences between the God-created ideal and our broken economic reality. In order to talk about the dignity of work, we must not, as theologian William Cavanaugh puts it, “just sprinkle holy water on whatever miserable jobs are out there.” We have to make a full accounting of whether work is the only source of human dignity, what counts as work, and how sin and evil distort the human vocation.
A first problem is that human dignity and bearing God’s image is given to every person. This is not earned, added to, or subtracted from by whether or not one is employed in market labor—which would be troubling, since only about a third of people in the US have a full-time job at any given time (the number is around 20% for the disabled). Work in the labor market is far from the only thing that gives God glory or lives up to human dignity. Learning an instrument, volunteering at church, raising one’s children, making peace between friends, helping a neighbor move houses—all of these are part of our mandate to co-create with God, but do not participate in the formal economy.
The second problem, though, is that “work” in the sense of doing labor for income can frequently violate the dignity of the human being. We live in the age of sin and death, where all the good that God intended for our world comes out distorted. When work is demeaning or depressingly mechanical and repetitive, when bosses exert totalizing control, wages are too low, or hours unpredictable, market labor can and does violate people’s dignity. More often than not, when the call on the “dignity of work” is made, it’s usually in defense of pushing more people into employment as an alternative to welfare—and frequently, the jobs people are pressed into have one or all of these qualities. These qualities are not distortions of capitalism, but part of its essential nature. In some ways, every society will have difficult and undesirable jobs to do, but capitalism has a unique way of putting the most vulnerable in these kind of jobs while also making them economically precarious.
The fear driving many proponents of work’s dignity is that by giving non-workers the means to subsist, you will encourage people to stop working, to stop co-creating with God, and to live as dependent wards of the state. But we know this to be untrue from the countries that have much stronger welfare states than the U.S.: people continue to work. All of the Nordic countries have higher workforce participation rates than the United States. More fundamentally, though, this fear is misguided: a good welfare state is not an incentive not to work, but rather a means by which we provide for the people the market will never give income to, as I've written before. Welfare is there to ensure that non-workers like children, the disabled, and the elderly are not hung out to dry.
Since good work—that which co-creates with God, that which helps our neighbors, that which grows the beauty of the world—is inherently an expression of human dignity, I do not in the least believe that it would wither and disappear were we to ensure that every human being had the means to live a good life. Indeed, having the means to live a good life is entirely dependent on people doing work for one another!
The “inherent dignity of work” further ought to be an argument for an increase in the power of workers in economic relationships: they should have a say in what constitutes dignified pay, dignified working conditions, and, most importantly, share ownership over the work that they create. These are not antithetical to but necessary for the dignity of work. To arrange the economy such that everyone is forced to work under demeaning, dictatorial conditions is not to uphold the dignity of work, but to distort and endanger it. To give workers a say over their work and to ensure everyone has the material means for a flourishing life is at the core of upholding work’s dignity.